Constructivism (or 'Social Constructivism')



In the discipline of international relations, constructivism (or 'social constructivism') is the application of constructivist epistemology to the study of world affairs.


This field is perhaps most closely associated with Alexander Wendt, as he has applied the ideas of social constructionism to the field of international relations. Wendt’s article "Anarchy is What States Make of It: the Social Construction of Power Politics" (1992) in International Organization laid the theoretical groundwork for challenging what he considered to be a flaw shared by both neorealists and neoliberal institutionalists, namely, a commitment to a (crude) form of materialism. By attempting to show that even such a core realist concept as "power politics" is socially constructed—-that is, not given by nature and hence, capable of being transformed by human practice--Wendt opened the way for a generation of international relations scholars to pursue work in a wide range of issues from a constructivist perspective.


Since the late 1980s and early 1990s, constructivism has become one of the major theories in the field of international relations. John Ruggie and others have identified several strands of constructivism. On the one hand, there are constructivist scholars such as Martha Finnemore, Kathryn Sikkink, Peter Katzenstein, and Alexander Wendt whose work has been widely accepted within the mainstream IR community and has generated vibrant scholarly discussions among realists, liberals, institutionalists, and constructivists. On the other hand, there are radical constructivists who take discourse and linguistics more seriously. Richard Ashley, Friedrich Kratochwil, Nicholas Onuf, and others still work in this area of constructivism, albeit largely outside of both mainstream IR and mainstream constructivist literature.


Many constructivists analyze international relations by looking at the goals, threats, fears, cultures, identities, and other elements of "social reality" on the international stage as the social constructs of the actors. In a key edited volume, The Culture of National Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), constructivist scholars (Elizabeth Kier, Jeffrey Legro, Peter Katzenstein, and many others) challenge many traditional realist assumptions about how the international system operates, especially with regard to military security issues. Another approach is offered by "Defending the West" (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005), in which James Gow studies contemporary issues of peace and security through empirical studies of the Western powers.


By focusing on how language and rhetoric are used to construct the social reality of the international system, constructivists are seen as more optimistic about progress in international relations than versions of realism loyal to a purely materialist ontology.


Constructivism is often mistakenly presented as an alternative to the two leading theories of international relations, realism and liberalism, but is not necessarily inconsistent with either. Wendt shares some key assumptions with leading realist and neorealist scholars, such as the existence of anarchy and the centrality of states in the international system. However, Wendt renders anarchy in cultural rather than materialist terms; he also offers a sophisticated theoretical defense of the state-as-actor assumption in international relations theory. This is a contentious issue within segments of the IR community as some constructivists challenge Wendt on some of these assumptions (see, for example, exchanges in Review of International Studies, vol. 30, 2004).


This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Constructivism in international relations".




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